A movement. A sound. I held my breath. There it was again. A scratching sound in the ductwork next to me.– Phyllis L Humby*
From lingerie boutique owner to Eden Mills fringe reader to First Monday columnist to published author, Lambton Shores writer Phyllis L Humby continues to forge a strong literary presence.
In April during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, Crossfield Publishing released Hazards of the Trade. This debut memoir is being marketed as Humby’s “personal disclosure of nearly twenty-years of humorous and sad reflections from the naïve start-up of a small-town lingerie boutique to the ultimate farewell.” What a career! Bravo, I say! My review of her book appears here.
And while some writers only dream of having their work published, Humby will see her second book, a debut novel released by Crossfield Publishing in the upcoming weeks.
Titled Old Broad Road, this is the first manuscript she wrote and shared with her Sarnia, Ontario writing critique group several years ago. Numerous drafts later, her dream to be published came unexpectedly like an avalanche with two books in two different genres released within six months of each other.
That’s amazing but her enthusiasm continues to drive her. She has already completed the draft of her sequel to Old Broad Road and is currently working at revising a psychological thriller. She is indeed multi-talented!
Earlier this month, I chatted with Phyllis (via e-mail) about her new memoir, her journey as a writer, her writing space, and her plans for the future.
Phyllis, we could chat for hours about your journey from your first dreams of becoming a writer to your current status, but what I’d like to know is how does it feel? What is it like to finally hold your memoir and see your words printed in a book by a trade publisher?
To see my first book in print by a trade publisher was validation of everything I’ve worked towards these past few years. Anyone who watches my tailgate book launch for my memoir Hazards of the Trade on YouTube can see my excitement at holding the finished product for the first time. I’m so happy that Crossfield Publishing videoed my reaction during the unique unveiling.
Watching you read your award-winning story on the Fringe Stage of the Eden Mills Writers Festival in 2013, I knew you had the skills and determination required to make it as a writer. (See my video of the event here.) I even wrote about your talents here in an earlier blog post.
Writing humour is difficult, and you have that eye and ear for recognizing and writing a good story. Over the years during local writers’ workshops, you shared several humorous as well as poignant stories from this new memoir. In fact, the first version was written in third person and later you changed it into first person, so it became a memoir. Tell me a little about this final version that is now in print. Give me your elevator pitch!
I used my background experience as a shop owner to create a series of short stories. When the writers’ group discovered my tales were non-fiction, they urged me to continue the stories in first person. Great advice! It proved much easier to ‘reminisce’ about those experiences from that POV. One memory magically recalled another.
Elevator pitch? Okay – Hazards of the Trade is a boutique owners intimate reveal of the 80s and 90s lingerie boom.
How did you decide what stories you wanted in the book and which ones you decided not to even write about?
I don’t remember there being a decision. The memories that came back to me were naturally the most unforgettable. After the book was published, a congratulatory phone call from someone ‘back in the day’ brought back even more memories. There was no end to some of the crazy things that went on.
As a writer, you’ve often described yourself as a ‘pantser’, someone who sits at the computer and just writes without plotting an outline. In writing fiction, you often admit that it is the muse and/or the character who dictates the direction. But with a memoir, you already know the story as it is based on your life. Was it difficult to switch genres? Why or why not?
I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of writing in different genres. That’s the fun of writing fiction. The memoir came easily since I was simply ‘recalling’ a period of my life.
And your style is so varied! Many of your fictional stories are dark, inspired by your interest in writing thrillers. Yet, your memoir is light and quite humorous in places and your columns for First Monday are also most entertaining. In fact, you are often the life of a party and your laughter is infectious. What is your secret for writing humour, for it is a gift that many writers find difficult mastering?
I don’t know that there’s a secret for writing humour. I never considered that it might be difficult for some writers. It’s the way my mind works; the humorous side of my mind that is, the other side of my mind is quite devious, apparently.
When you first started writing, you didn’t have a designated spot or at least I don’t recall you having a special place to play with your words. Then one day, you came to the local writers’ group and described your process of emptying out a windowless closet in your basement and moving your desk inside so that you would have a quiet place, empty of distractions in order to write. Recently, you moved to a new home with a main floor office but had to make some adjustments to enhance your writing even further. In a paragraph or two, describe your new writing space. What do you have on your walls? What other items do you surround yourself with, in order to release your writing power?
Well, you’re right; I moved my writing space to the basement to get away from all the distractions of nature outside my office window on the main floor. I would be writing a crime story and extolling the antics of chipmunks, and the feeding ritual of baby robins, at the same time. It wasn’t a basement closet though; it was a spacious storage room that accommodated an eight-foot desk and any other equipment I needed to make ‘what-if’ magic.
Now I have a small writing room that I refer to as my ‘nest’ where I can still witness nature, but, since I no longer live in the country, there aren’t as many distractions outside my window. I love the sign in my office that reads ‘Think Outside the Box’.
So much has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, your book launch at The Book Keeper in Sarnia, Ontario was postponed so your publisher organized a social distanced gathering of two in a secluded parking lot. I’m sure many of the publisher’s marketing plans had to be modified. How are you coping with these changes? What are you doing to relax to keep your creativity flowing?
Sometimes I cope, and sometimes I don’t. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions. It was thrilling to anticipate the launch of my new book, and then hugely disappointing to see all the plans cancelled. Crossfield Publishing did their best to make my release special for me. We met in a parking lot where I opened a box of books for the first glimpse, smell, and touch of my brand-new baby.
Admittedly, it’s been challenging to write since the onslaught of the pandemic. Especially humour! It was several months before I felt that my First Monday columns were back to ‘normal’. As far as my fiction writing, I’d just finished writing a new novel, so I was busy with the follow-up drafts. My fear and anxiety over COVID might have stymied my creativity, but my editing skills were still intact.
What’s next on the horizon?
Crossfield Publishing is releasing my debut novel, Old Broad Road, a gritty tale set in Newfoundland, about a middle-aged runaway, will be released this fall.
Tell me a little more about this novel! Where did the idea come from and what challenges (if any) did you encounter while researching, creating, rewriting, and working with an editor?
The idea for this novel germinated on my first visit to Newfoundland. It was love at first sight and the profound experience opened my mind to the ‘what-if’ scenario of an older woman who’s running away from her past, and leaves her family and friends behind to settle in a part of Canada she’d never seen before.
Of course, this involved quite a bit of research, which I love. I even purchased a dictionary of the unique Newfoundland idioms and phrases. I began writing the novel while the sound of their accents was still in my ears. I had a Newfoundlander read an early draft to assure me there weren’t unintentional gaffes and then I was fortunate that my publisher employed an editor who was originally from the province.
I think the original manuscript brought the most joy I’ve ever experienced in writing. It was exhiliarating and I finished the story in record time. As a novice, I followed the advice of many ‘well-meaning advisers’ and altered the voice of my novel until I was beyond frustrated. Finally, I ditched the revisions and went back to editing my original draft relying on my own instincts.
How about a teaser? Is there a line or two from the novel that you would be willing to share prior to the release date?
“Pretending was part of my healing process. Pretending to be alone in the world gave me solace. On the beach at night, screaming into the crashing waves, I raged against my fears. Nighttime was when I ranted and cried. That’s when I felt old and unhinged.”
Wow, I can already feel your character’s emotions! Is there anything else that you would like to mention to the reader?
Dear Reader, Stay tuned! There’s more in store for you…
Thank you so much Phyllis. I loved your memoir Hazards of the Trade. Looking forward to picking up a copy and reading Old Broad Road once it is released.
Phyllis L Humby resides in Lambton Shores, Ontario, where she indulges her passion for writing. Phyllis is the author of the April 2020 memoir Hazards of the Trade: An intimate reveal of the 80s and 90s lingerie boom. Crossfield Publishing is also releasing her debut novel Old Broad Road (Fall 2020): A gritty tale about a middle-aged runaway who thinks that Newfoundland is the perfect refuge…but life isn’t perfect. Check out her website or follow Phyllis on Twitter and Facebook.
Additional information about Hazards of the Trade and Old Broad Road can be found on the Crossfield Publishing website.
An excerpt of her story “Fur Accessories” appears here on the Open Book website.
A YouTube video of her reading from the same story appears here.
An interview with Phyllis featuring her debut novel Old Broad Road appears here on the Open Book website.
A previous interview with Humby and her involvement with the anthology Our Plan to Save the World (Lulu.com 2018) appears here.